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Students program robots in statewide competition

Chandler Wright

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This weekend, The University of Alabama will host the Alabama Robotics Competition, an event open to K-12 students. The competition will involve programming robots to navigate a series of obstacle sources.

“[There is] an emphasis on programming skills, resulting in autonomous robot control, rather than a robot that is maneuvered by a remote control,” Jeff Gray, associate professor in computer science, said. “Points are scored in this new competition based on the clever solutions of student programs rather than the skill of a teammate with a remote control.”

The contest, which was started in 2011, will host nearly 70 teams this year, giving out awards in several categories across grade levels in elementary, middle and high school divisions. Gray said the event is important given the rise of computer science jobs and opportunities.

(See also “UA robotics team finishes 4th at IEEE SoutheastCon“)

“Computer science is not taught in the overwhelming majority of Alabama schools and also not covered well nationally. A new effort to raise awareness about the career opportunities has been gaining momentum nationally,” Gray said. “This robotics event will help participants understand the opportunities involved in computing while also showing the joy and excitement that can be experienced with computing topics.”

Carol Yarbrough, a teacher at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, will speak at the event about the new AP exam in computer science and will bring students to compete. She said the competition provides a rare opportunity for students.

“My students have participated every year the contest has been held,” she said. “They always have a good time and want to compete again the following year.”

Yarbrough said participants arrive at the event with robots pre-built and software pre-loaded on a laptop. When the contest begins, they are given descriptions of the various tasks they must complete.

“These tasks vary in difficulty and can be anything from having the robot push a ball into a target to traversing a complex maze. Students then go into the programming room and program the robot to complete the tasks,” she said. “They can complete them in any order and can make multiple attempts to get their best score on each task.”

Yarbrough said it is vital for universities like Alabama to host events like this to get students excited about computer science.

“Many K-12 schools do not offer computer science, and an event like the Alabama Robotics Competition may be the first exposure some students have to computer science,” Yarbrough said. “It is a great opportunity for them to realize that they can have fun solving problems and possibly start them along the path to a rewarding career.”

(See also “Engineering students place sixth in robotics competition“)

Gray said there will also be a variety of UA student groups present, along with a variety of speakers including Markus Seifert from Mercedes-Benz, Charles Heckstall from Microsoft and Dean of the Honors College Shane Sharpe.

“There will be several vendor tables at the event, [in addition to] talks that run parallel to the contest,” Gray said. “The UA Lunabots, [a UA robotics team], will be providing a talk on their research and contest experiences. Tarif Haque, a computer-based honors student, will also be showcasing his research at the Honors table.”

Gray said he is most looking forward to watching the joy on the faces of students whose robot just completed one of the obstacle courses.

“All of the new connections with teachers and students also is an exciting part of the event,” Gray said. “Seeing the UA student volunteers and staff come together to help put this event on is always a rewarding result.”

The Alabama Robotics Competition will be held Saturday starting at 11 a.m. at the Bryant Conference Center.

(See also “Computer camp teaches programming“)

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Students program robots in statewide competition